Eva Zimmermann is eight years old, and she has just discovered she is Jewish. Such is the life of an only child living in postwar Bucharest, a city that is changing in ever more frightening ways. Eva's family, full of eccentric and opinionated adults, will do absolutely anything to keep her safeeven if it means hiding her identity from her. With razor-sharp depictions of her animated relatives, Haya Leah Molnar's memoir of her childhood captures with touching precocity the very adult realities of living behind the iron curtain.
Under a Red Sky is a 2011 Bank Street - Best Children's Book of the Year.
About the Author
Haya Leah Molnar lives in New York City. This is her first book.
Read an Excerpt
Under a Red Sky
WHAT CAME FIRSTBUCHAREST, ROMANIANOVEMBER 1957
GRANDPA YOSEF TAPS on our bedroom door. Mama helps me dress in the early morning silence, her index finger crossing her lips, urging me to keep quiet so I won't wake up Tatamy fatherwho is snoring lightly in the bed next to mine. I am sleepy but excited. Mama has agreed to let me go with Grandpa to Bucharest's old outdoor farmers' market for the first time.
In the dining room Grandpa has set out for me a plate with two slices of buttered crusty bread and a cup of tea with a wedge of lemon. Next to it is a small bowl filled with sugar cubes. I pop a sugar cube in my mouth, tucking it behind my two front teeth with my tongue, the way Grandpa Yosef has taught me, and sip my tea. Grandpa sits with me sipping his tea and dragging on his cigarette, its tip glowing in the early morning light.
"You were a lovely baby," Grandpa says, surveying me from across the table. "You are growing more beautiful every day." I make a face at him between bites, and he smiles back. "Just as long as you know that beauty is only skin-deep, you'll be all right. Raw intelligence isn't enough." I roll my eyes still heavy with sleep at him, buthe goes on, ignoring me. "You'll need common sense, wisdom, and luck. I hope you will have luck. Luck is the most important thing of all." He stops abruptly and looks at his watch. "It's almost five. We have to go, or there won't be anything left at the market for us to buy."
I run to the entrance hall closet. Grandpa holds my coat as I slip each arm in. He bundles me in my muffler and makes sure that my wool hat covers my ears. "Let's go," he says, taking my hand.
It is chilly outside. A satchel made of strong white netting hangs out of Grandpa's overcoat. His pants pockets are stuffed with bits of string, small pieces of rope, and carefully folded sheets of newspaper. "Only fools or foreigners go to the market without their wrapping," he says, handing me a hard candy in cellophane. "Save it for later, in case you get hungry while we wait in line."
We walk hand in hand to the tram. Grandpa's hands are rough except for his smooth gold wedding band, which is loose enough for me to twirl around on his finger but too tight to slide past his gnarled knuckle. Grandpa is wearing his usual hat, with the brim turned down just enough to cast a shadow over his eyes. He calls it his Humphrey Bogart hat. I've never seen a movie with Humphrey Bogart because he is an American movie star and we are not allowed to watch American film propaganda, but Grandpa says that Mr. Bogart is a great actor. Of course he would know, since Grandpa used to own the best movie house in all of Bucharest. His Humphrey Bogart hat is one of his reminders of life before the war.
The sun has not yet risen, but a hint of purple as deep as the skin of a plum is turning pink at the horizon. The tram is approachingfrom the distance. Electric sparks light up like fireflies above a spiderweb of wires. I am fascinated with how smoothly the tram glides into the station on its thin metal rails. The doors open, and we climb up into the car and find seats. I wonder silently how come Grandpa never complains that he's no longer being driven around Bucharest like a rich man in his fancy horse-drawn carriage.
"Who shopped for you before the war?" I ask him.
"The cook's helper, shhhhh," he whispers, his eyes roaming the tramcar to make sure that our conversation isn't overheard. Everyone looks half asleep. Grandpa sighs and gazes out the window.
"Yes, but did the cook's helper buy what you needed?" I press on. "How did she know what to buy if you weren't there?"
"She didn't." Grandpa smiles. "I do a far better job than she ever did." He winks at me as if that's our secret. "I'm friends with all the farmers. That's why I always get the best goods at the best prices. Unfortunately, there isn't much to buy nowadays."
"Because the farmers aren't producing as much as they used to," Grandpa continues, his eyes still scanning the car to make sure that no one's listening.
"Why aren't the farmers producing?"
"Because there's not enough money in it for them and because there's no love in working for someone else," Grandpa answers in a lowered voice.
"I don't understand," I whisper back, tugging at his coat.
"It's better that you don't," Grandpa says curtly, but then he tries to explain. "There was a time not that long ago when farmers sold their goods and the profit was theirs to keep. Now that they work for the Party cooperatives, they only get to keep a small percentage."
I have no idea what profit and percentage mean, but I understand that the farmers aren't happy because the Communist Party is now in charge.
THE SUN HAS JUST RISEN when we arrive at the market. It is a gray, chilly day that smells like snow may arrive sooner than expected. There are only a few farmers' stalls, with lots of people in gray overcoats milling about. Everyone is intent on finding out what's for sale. Grandpa grabs my hand and gets in a line without checking the stall first. We are fifth in line, and lots of people are hurrying behind us.
"Why are we standing here, Grandpa?"
"To buy something." Ashes fall like snowflakes from the tip of his cigarette as he takes a deep drag.
"I know that," I whisper back impatiently. "What are we going to buy?"
"I don't know. We'll find out when we get to the front of the line." Grandpa looks anxiously past the people ahead of us. "We'll take whatever they're selling, just as long as it's something we can eat. Your grandma is counting on us."
We wait for what seems like forever. The people in front of us are buying so many things, I am worried that nothing will be left for us. Then I set eyes on the farmer. He is a giant of a man wearing a black fur hat and a heavy khaki vest with brass buttons. His shrewd gray eyes are topped by a set of huge bushy eyebrows. He recognizes Grandpa instantly.
"Mr. Yosef, sir, how are you?" The farmer smiles at both of us, revealing a gold front tooth.
"Can't complain," Grandpa answers. "So what have you got today, Ion?"
"Oh, we've got new potatoes and some onions," Ion says, pointing at the baskets in front of him, rubbing his hands together, and blowing air into his fists to warm up. "I've also got peas," he continues as he uncovers another basket filled with green pods.
I notice that some of the potatoes have sprouts growing out of them. The onions are small, but their scent is so strong I can smell them without putting my nose up close. I love the pea pods. Each is like a little boat holding its treasure of green pearls within. If Grandpa decides to buy these, I know that I'll have my work cut out for an entire afternoon since Grandma Iulia always asks me to shell them for her. Ion checks me out while Grandpa is scrutinizing the produce. I can feel his eyes upon me, so I hide behind Grandpa.
"Who is this young lady with you, Mr. Yosef?" Ion asks.
"This is my granddaughter, Eva." Grandpa pushes me forward gently. "Eva, say hello to Comrade Ion."
"Hello," I whisper, looking down.
"What a pretty young lady you are." Comrade Ion smiles and bows, taking my hand in his giant one and brushing his lips against my fingers. "Srut mâna, domnioarI kiss your hand, young lady." He looks me over as if I were intentionally trying to charm him. I am mortified. No one has ever kissed my hand before! I've seen men greet my mother, my aunt Puica, and Grandma Iulia like that. But it has never occurred to me that someday a man might kiss my hand in greeting.
Grandpa rescues me. "Yes, Eva is as smart as she is lovely. That's why I want her to learn to shop properly." Grandpa takes out his matches. He opens the matchbook cover and glances at Grandma Iulia's wish list, scribbled on the inside flap.
"How can I possibly help you, young lady?" Ion addresses me as if I were already a grownup.
"Hmm." I consider his question, then blurt out, "I would like a chicken. Please."
"A chicken?" Ion whispers and laughs, his narrow eyes widening.
"Yes, a chicken," I repeat.
The people in line behind us stir. There's a short, uncomfortable silence before Ion answers me with conviction. "Well, how can we disappoint such a charming young lady on her first day at the market? Mr. Yosef, sir, would you mind paying for your potatoes and vegetables now?" Ion speaks softly, his eyes looking directly into Grandpa's. "Can you wait until I'm done with my other customers and come back later?"
"No problem," Grandpa is quick to answer. "We'll check in with you in about an hour."
Grandpa takes my hand and starts walking decisively away.
"Grandpa, I'm hungry," I tell him the minute we leave Comrade Ion.
"Eat the candy I gave you."
The sticky sweetness immediately fills my mouth with saliva and delicious orange flavor. We walk around happily hand in hand. Everyone nods in recognition when they see Grandpa. His gait has an assurance that few men carry, but his shoulders are slightly rounded. His head is bent in resigned contemplation; his dark brown eyes are moist and kind; his nose is big. He is clean-shaven. The hair he has left on the sides of his head has turned silver, but the top of his head is bald and shiny. What I love about Grandpa is that he exudes a quiet calm that's missing from everyone else in our house.
We stop at the sugar and flour stall. The line here is shorter.
"Grandpa, we've already got sugar and flour at home."
"That's true," he replies, unfolding a brown paper bag from his pocket. "But you never know when they're going to sell it again, and we don't want to run out."
The lady who is serving us fills the bag with great care, making sure not to spill even a single grain of sugar.
"How much longer do we have to wait for the chicken?" I ask.
Grandpa glances at his watch and looks in the direction of Ion's line. "Just a little longer," he says.
"I know. That's why we're waiting," he says, smiling at me.
"But, Grandpa, how do we know that he's got a chicken?"
"We don't know, but we have to have faith."
"Faith?" I cry. "Grandpa, I want to know!"
"The only way you will know is if you have faith and patience."
"But, Grandpa, what if he's lying?"
"Did he look like he was lying to you?" Grandpa's face turns serious.
"No, but what if"
"There are no what-ifs. We just have to trust him and hope that we'll get a chicken." Grandpa's voice is calm, but the grip of his hand feels tighter around mine.
"But what if he sold the chicken to someone else?" I imagine the aroma rising from a bowl of steaming chicken soup. My mouth waters in anticipation of the moment of that first sip of broth, which I've experienced only a handful of times since I was born. "Maybe he'll take the chicken back to the farm for his own family," I say, tugging at Grandpa. "Or he might sell it to someone else."
"Oh, my sweet, how you love to make up stories!" Grandpa says. "There can be no doubt. Ion will have a chicken for us."
"You have no doubt?" I ask in astonishment.
"None whatsoever," Grandpa says, throwing his cigarette butt on the ground and stepping on it.
When the line finally disperses, Grandpa and I approach Ion's stall as unobtrusively as possible. The farmers are packing up their baskets all around us. Ion motions to us to follow him behind a small building that houses some makeshift offices and the toilets.
"This way," he says, and points with his chapped fingers. He leads us to a wooden shed. He takes an old metal key out of his pocket and unlocks the rusty padlock. It is very dark inside. Ion pulls on a string, and a bare bulb lights up. I adjust my eyes and see that we are standing on a dirt floor covered with sawdust. All the way in the back of the shed is a mound of hay, and perched on it is a white chicken with a red crest on top of her head and eyes that are as shiny as amber jewels. The chicken is clucking softly.
"You wanted a chicken?" Ion motions toward the bird with a flourish. "She's yours," he says, beckoning me to come closer.
I climb the straw mound carefully, so as not to scare the chicken.
"Go ahead," Ion tells me. "You can pet her."
I put my hand out and barely touch the bird's feathers. They are softer than anything I have ever felt before.
"I brought two chickens from the farm," Ion confides, "one for my brother, Petric, who now lives here in the capital. Petric picked his up at dawn, before the market opened. He didn't want anyone to see it and get into a fight over it." Ion points at my chicken. "This one I was saving for whoever will pay top price."
Grandpa nods. "How much?"
"Being that you have this beautiful young lady with you, Dom-nule Yosef, I mean Comrade Yosef, I'll take whatever you can offer. Within reason, of course." Ion chooses his words carefully.
"I'll give you everything I've got on me," Grandpa tells him, opening his coat and taking three loose cigarettes out of his shirt pocket. He gives one to Ion, who places it between his lips without taking his eyes off Grandpa. In turn, Grandpa looks at Ion and takes his matchbook out again, ignoring Grandma Iulia's wish list on its inside cover. He strikes a match, shielding the flame with his hand for Ion to light up. Ion takes a deep drag on his cigarette and winks at me, his eyes smiling. Grandpa runs his hand across his chest, feeling for the small sewing needle with which earlier that morning he had pinned all his cash to the inside of his shirt pocket. His stiff fingers withdraw a bunch of folded lei bills. Without counting them, Grandpa hands over the entire wad of money. Ion takes the bills, also without counting them, and places them carefully inside his vest pocket, where they make a huge bulge.
"I'm sorry that I don't have more." Grandpa's voice trails off, sounding genuinely regretful.
"No problem, Mr. Yosef. No need to apologize. You're not like all the rest." Ion nods toward the now empty marketplace. "They take so much pleasure in haggling, they forget that farmers have to live too. They assume that we're lucky because we have food. Let them try to pay their bills while fulfilling the Party's cooperative quota! If this is all you can afford, Mr. Yosef, I'll take your word. It's enough," Ion says, watching me squat by the chicken and run my fingers through her feathers. "Besides, it's a pleasure to see Miss Eva here so happy on her first day at the market."
"You've made my entire family happy, Ion. We've got seven more mouths to feed at home," Grandpa says, handing Ion the extra cigarette and shaking hands. Ion ties the chicken's legs with a thin piece of rope. The bird does not resist as he places her in a straw basket and covers her with a cloth.
We do not take the tram back. We walk home. Grandpa is afraid that someone on the tram might hear the chicken clucking and try to rob us. I am hungry and exhausted but too happy to complain.
GRANDMA IULIA GREETS US at the door and follows us into the kitchen, her slippers making a flapping sound. Grandpa Yosef unpacks the potatoes, onions, and peas. He hands her the sugar and the flour. Grandma carefully takes stock of everything.
"That's all?" Her question hangs in the air.
"Almost." Grandpa's voice is serious, but he winks at me.
"Take a look." Grandpa motions to the straw basket on the kitchen floor. Grandma's eyes widen as she slides the cloth off the basket. "Oh my God, Yosef, it's a chicken!" she cries.
"Of course it's a chicken, Iulia. But this is not just any chicken. This is Eva's present, because she charmed Ion into selling it to me."
Grandma is not interested in the details of the sale. She lifts the basket with great care, places it on the kitchen counter, and examines the bird closely. With her left hand she holds down the chicken while she feels for the body fat under her wings. She touches the bird from the top of her red crest down to her scrawny legs and her sharp, pointy toes. It is clear that Grandma is figuring out how to make the most out of my chicken, but her eyes are still incredulous. Thechicken ignores Grandma's excitement and fills the kitchen with soft clucking sounds.
"Yosef," Grandma says, "you'd better get ready to slaughter this bird. And please do a better job than you did the last time. I can still see that poor thing running around without her head, splattering blood all over my kitchen. It took Sabina half a day to clean the mess off these walls. Who can have an appetite after such a thing? I didn't touch a bite from our last chicken."
I tiptoe to the pantry, open the door slowly so that it won't squeak, and slide in. The pantry is my hiding place, tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the house. I pull out a wooden stool from under a shelf and sit down in the cool darkness, where I can stretch my legs and think.
"Don't worry, Iulia." Grandpa's voice drifts in from the kitchen. "I will be as swift and merciful as a shochet." In the damp of the pantry I wonder what a shochet is, but I stop short of blurting out the question.
"God forgive us," says Grandma, "we've been reduced to having to slaughter our own chickens! My parents must be turning in their graves, may they rest in peace." Even though I can't see Grandma Iulia from my hiding place, I know that, right about now, she is shaking her finger at Grandpa.
"I know," Grandpa Yosef says. "Once upon a time I corrupted you by marrying you and made you change your parents' kosher ways." His voice holds a hint of sarcasm.
Grandma shoots back, "You have no respect, Yosef."
"Sure I do, but I'll be the first to admit that I'm no shochet. You expect merciful butchers from the Communists, Iulia?"
"Just be swift," she pleads.
"I will," Grandpa promises, "and I will have mercy in my heart and say a prayer just for you."
"Now you're praying? Where were you when we had a chance to get out of this godforsaken country? Don't pray for me, pray for the poor chicken." Grandma sniffs.
"I'll say a prayer for the chicken and for you. I'll ask God to help us get out of here so that you can have your kosher chickens once again. Do you feel better now?" Grandpa laughs.
Grandma Iulia doesn't respond.
"Don't hang around here," Grandpa tells her. "You make me nervous."
I SIT IN THE DARK of the pantry for a long time and listen to the clucking of my chicken drift in from the counter. I can't imagine my beautiful bird with her soft white feathers and her glowing amber eyes transformed into a bowl of chicken paprikash with dumplings and chicken soup as well. I wish I had never asked for a chicken.
Grandpa's footsteps approach. The pantry door squeaks as I push it open a crack. A shaft of light enters the dark space.
"What are you doing in here?" Grandpa asks, carrying the basket with my chicken in both his arms.
"Nothing." I sigh, then add, "My chicken."
Grandpa places the basket down and lifts me up.
"Your chicken is a great, great present," he says. "Thank you."
"Not anymore," I answer, glaring at him. "You're going to kill her!"
"You can't eat a live chicken," Grandpa says, "but I promise to slaughter her as mercifully as a shochet."
"I don't feel like eating chicken anymore. What's a shochet?"
"When you're hungry, you'll eat almost anything, especially delicious chicken. A shochet is a butcher who is trained to slaughter with mercy and prepare meat according to our laws."
"Why don't we have a shochet?"
"The Communists don't allow it."
"I hate you having to slaughter my chicken."
"I know, me too. But we have to eat."
"Can I say goodbye to her?" I ask.
"Why, certainly," he answers, sitting me down on the kitchen counter. "I won't slaughter her today, just so you can have an extra day with your chicken."
"Grandpa, you can't hide the chicken from Grandma. She'll hear the clucking and be angry that you didn't kill her yet."
"Don't worry, Grandma won't mind."
"Yes, she will. What are we going to tell her?"
"I don't know. We'll think of something," he murmurs.
"Can I pet my chicken?"
"Of course," he says, lifting the bird out of the basket and placing her on the counter next to me.
"I don't like her legs tied up," I whisper as I run my fingers through the feathers.
"She doesn't either," he whispers back as I wrap my arms around my chicken and feel her chest heave with clucking sounds.
Grandpa sighs. "We'll hide her in the pantry until tomorrow afternoon. Here, help me put her back in the basket," he says. "Open the handles wide and I'll lift her." The chicken flutters her wings as I open the basket.
"Look, Grandpa!" A perfect white egg is nestled amid the straw at the bottom of the basket.
"Now, that's special," Grandpa says. "You know, I think she did that just for you."
"Do you think so?" I can't take my eyes off the egg.
"Absolutely. That's the freshest egg you've ever seen. Watch." Grandpa walks across the kitchen and holds up the egg against the light from the window. "Can you see the yolk?" he asks, pointing at the shadow beneath the shell.
"It's round like the sun." I am in awe.
"It certainly is. We'll tell Grandma Iulia that this chicken's earned herself an extra day of life. You can have the egg for breakfast tomorrow. Okay?"
"Maybe she'll lay another egg, Grandpa," I say, hoping to save my chicken from her fate.
"God knows, anything's possible." Grandpa answers with a straight face, but his eyes are full of laughter.
Copyright © 2010 by Haya Leah Molnar All rights reserved